The brouhaha between journalist Bob Woodward and the White House appears to be dying down, but it offers a window into the unhealthy antagonism that exists between the West Wing and the mainstream media.
White House economics adviser Gene Sperling spent much of Sunday trying to make nice toward Woodward after their earlier blowup, which got extensive media attention last week. It probably means little or nothing to most Americans, but the fact remains the Sperling-Woodward dispute has raised larger questions about White House-media relations.
Like previous administrations, Obama's advisers are trying to force-feed the press corps with their version of reality, and they sometimes give the impression they don't respect the men and women who cover the presidency. Their tactics include bullying, hassling, and, yes, threatening reporters in an effort to get them to back down from their stories or their lines of inquiry. The threats can include warnings that a reporter will lose whatever access he or she has to Obamaworld. In other cases, administration figures or Obama's allies outside government threaten to publicly challenge a reporter's credibility, sometimes with the accompanying use of foul or insulting language.
I've had my share of dustups with White House officials, as have many other journalists from major mainstream news organizations that cover the White House. It's par for the course to be yelled at or confronted by an angry aide. Over the years, and through covering five presidencies, I've learned that such tensions go with the territory. But the problems of incivility and mistrust are getting worse and they go beyond the run-in that Sperling had with Woodward, a respected reporter who helped to break the Watergate story in the mid 1970s, and who has written many books and articles since then about the internal workings of the presidency.
The original incident was rooted in a policy dispute. Sperling apparently berated Woodward on the phone for the journalist's argument in the Washington Post that the automatic budget cuts then looming, known as sequestration, were really the Obama administration's idea. Woodward wrote that tax increases weren't part of the legislation signed by Obama many months ago that called for sequestration, and now Obama was trying to change the nature of that agreement by insisting on more tax increases rather than only spending cuts. Sperling argued that Woodward had it wrong, that Obama always favored a balanced approach and Republicans were being obstructionist by opposing all tax hikes.
Sperling apparently got hot under the collar in their conversation, and Woodward felt that the White House adviser went too far in telling him in a subsequent E-mail that he would regret his story.
Over the weekend, Sperling was conciliatory, telling network TV interviewers that he still considers Woodward a "legend" and expressing hope that the two could patch things up. Woodward told CBS that he wants to invite Sperling and President Barack Obama to his home to talk things over.
To many White House reporters, the incident was a familiar example of White House excess in selling its message. Another concern in the press corps is that, beyond the Woodward-Sperling fuss, the Obama White House is using every opportunity to bypass the mainstream media, but unlike its predecessors the Obama team has been particularly successful at it. Part of the reason is that the MSM today have relatively low credibility with the public, and the media's objections about lack of access don't resonate with everyday people the way they used to.
Just as important, Team Obama is adept at using new ways of communicating, such as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, in addition to its E-mail list of millions of supporters, to transmit its message unfiltered by the MSM.
But in the process, something important has been lost. Journalists who cover Obama today don't really know him, no matter how many of the president's speeches, news conferences and activities they attend. They have virtually no relationship with him, so they don't know how his mind works and what priorities he really has on budget cuts and many other topics. White House staffers don't adequately fill in the blanks as they did in the past, such as under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. As a result, much of the Obama presidency remains murky.
As I have discussed in this space before, Obama holds relatively few news conferences and when he does, he generally calls on reporters from only a handful of news outlets, especially television and the wire services. He gives many one-on-one interviews, but has focused recently on talking with local TV anchors and celebrity network personalities, rather than front-line beat reporters who specialize in knowing the issues.
For their part, Obama and his aides consider the mainstream media and the White House press corps too sensationalistic, too preoccupied with trivia and process over substance, and too eager to play "gotcha." Many Americans agree, although my feeling is that these criticisms are exaggerated, and that there are plenty of journalists who want to tell straightforward stories about what's going on, if only White House officials would cooperate. These journalists see their profession as a form of public education, and any White House would be well advised to deal with them rather than shunt them aside.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a former White House correspondent for Time, says the media-White House relationship is better now than it was when he arrived on the beat as a reporter in 1993. But Carney is using a very low standard. The year 1993 was an unusually bad time for then-President Clinton and his aides, who had a bad start and seemed arrogant, overbearing, and prone to missteps. They even tried to declare the Upper Press Office, where the press secretary has an official suite, off limits to reporters. The no-fly zone was quickly rescinded after protests by outraged reporters, but this incident and others created considerable bitterness on both sides.
Beyond all this, what has happened over the years is that White House officials have seemed ever more devoted to spin rather than a straightforward presentation of information. The White House may benefit from this perpetual PR campaign, but to my mind everyone else loses because the flow of information becomes so limited. And in the end, perpetual spin also erodes the credibility of the administration itself.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News and has done so since 1986. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is former president of the White House Correspondents' Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.